Natural disasters wreak havoc in marginalized communities and cost billions in recovery and aid funding. Most of these occur because of forces outside human control. The movement of Earth’s crustal plates, for instance, triggers earthquakes and tsunamis. Variation in solar radiation entering the atmosphere and oceans triggers storms. Over the past few years, these disasters have been becoming more frequent and worse.
Statista, a German online portal for statistics, reported that there were a total of 409 natural disasters across the world in 2019. This was higher compared to the natural hazards that occurred back in 2000, which was a total of 343. The Asian Pacific region experienced the highest number of natural disasters, most likely due to its size and susceptibility. These hazards often result in the destruction of the physical, biological, and social environment of the affected people.
To date, Asia has suffered the greatest losses and the most frequent disasters. Between 2005 to 2014, China recorded the highest number of disasters with a total of 286. This was followed by the US (212), the Philippines (181), India (157), Indonesia (141), and Vietnam (73). According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, the US suffered the highest total damage with $443 billion. This was followed by China ($265 billion), and Japan ($239 billion).
Now that we are going through a pandemic, many people fear that countries would become more vulnerable to natural disasters. Governments are heavily focused on controlling the impacts of the virus while addressing the impacts of the pandemic. It would be a lot worse if a natural disaster suddenly hit a vulnerable country.
Natural Disasters Forecast
A recent forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed that many parts of the US could face possible natural hazards. It warned that about 1.2 million people throughout the Midwest face risks of major flooding this spring. Atlantic hurricanes are also expected to make landfall this year, which generally form between June 1 and November 30. Scientists from the Colorado State University revealed that there’s a 70% chance this could happen.
All of those can occur alongside extended and more frequent and erratic wildfire -- all fueled by climate change. “We’ve had basically no snowpack down in the low country here in our area, so we know we’re going to have a bad fire season,” Carlene Anders, mayor of Pateros, Washington, and executive director of the Disaster Leadership Team, said.
According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, government officials and disaster experts expressed their concerns about the challenges the pandemic could pose. During a pandemic, climate change can increase its destructive potential to influence natural disasters. While previous disasters have threatened to overwhelm the national response system, experts say that we have never faced a situation quite like this one. The pandemic is forcing us to rethink how we can prepare and provide relief, from how people evacuate to how they are sheltered in the wake of a weather catastrophe.
"In 2017, when you had Harvey, Irma and Maria, that stretched FEMA pretty thin, and some would say past the breaking point. But right now, you have a disaster going on in every state, every territory, every county and every city,” Bryan Koon, the former director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management, said.
Social Distancing is At Risk of Being Violated
When this pandemic started, we were all instructed to observe social distancing to control the spread of the virus. But during a natural disaster, we are all required to keep close contact with one another. Survivors gather tightly packed in shelters, teams search for victims in the wreckage of buildings, and distribution centers organize lines of volunteers -- all violating social distancing. Even the preparations for these natural disasters are heavily affected.
According to Scientific American, an American popular science magazine, the need for social distancing has curtailed some of the usual preparation activities. This includes training wildfire fighters and providing public outreach to hurricane-prone areas. “This is a very unique situation. [And] emergency managers are having detailed discussions about it right now,” Erin Hughey, director of global operations at the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) in Hawaii, said.
Emergency planners are not only challenged with thinking about how to safely evacuate people during a natural disaster without furthering the spread of a deadly virus but also how to safely shelter displaced people if social distancing measures. Hurricane Irma in Florida, for instance, received 300,000 people at public shelters. "How can you shelter 300,000 people when you can't pack them all into gymnasiums as you have in the past?" Koon said.
FEMA recently acknowledged the difficulties of providing shelter and maintaining social distance. "We are working with our partners on new guidance on non-congregate sheltering to be able to support state and local efforts as they address these issues,” a spokesperson said.
Problem With Staff and Volunteers
At this time, many countries are lacking staff to respond to any kind of natural disaster. In the US, first responders are enduring illness among their ranks. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, nearly 16,000 firefighters and emergency medical service responders have reported exposure to COVID-19 in the country alone—almost 5,000 of whom are in quarantine.
Experts acknowledged that disaster relief is ultimately dependent on people, including lots of volunteers. More than 90% of the Red Cross' workforce are volunteers. One of the main challenges would be the availability and safety of volunteers during the pandemic.
All of these challenges will only amplify as the scale of the potential disaster increases. Experts say that any disasters that do occur while the pandemic rages on will be a major learning experience that can inform future actions. According to them, this could be an opportunity to do detailed studies that emergency response researchers had only previously discussed as a remote possibility.
“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to collect and analyze data that we don’t always get. It is a tremendous opportunity to learn, and shine a light on, how to better manage the future,” Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said.